The “world’s greatest rock critic” offers some advice to William Miller, a friendless, precocious 15-year-old who has just lucked into an assignment from Rolling Stone magazine to accompany an up-and-coming rock band on tour.
“Don’t make friends with rock stars,” Lester Bangs (Rob Colletti) advises William (Casey Likes.) “They’re gonna buy you drinks, you’ll meet girls, offer you drugs” – and seduce him into writing about them as if they’re geniuses, which he shouldn’t do. This would ruin everything worth loving about rock n roll, “a form that is gloriously and righteously dumb.”
William doesn’t take Lester’s advice, embarking on a coming-of-age adventure in “Almost Famous,” a musical adaptation by Cameron Crowe and Tom Kitt of Crowe’s 2000 movie, opening tonight at Broadway’s Bernard B Jacobs Theater.
In a way, the production itself doesn’t take Lester’s advice either. It’s not dumb enough to be enjoyed as straight-out rock n roll — like, for example, the jukebox rock musical “Rock of Ages.” But at the same time, although it has its pleasures, “Almost Famous” is not quite smart enough to have been fully satisfying to me as musical theater.
I remember loving the movie. I don’t feel as enthusiastic about the musical, even though the story is virtually identical, scene after scene, and the book is written by Cameron Crowe, who both wrote and directed the movie, winning an Oscar for a screenplay that was inspired by his own experiences as a teenage journalist for Rolling Stone in the 1970s.
As in the movie, it is 1973 in San Diego and William has an overbearing mother, Elaine (Anika Larsen), a widowed college professor. As William sings in the opening number (“1973”): “She knows everything/She can read your mind/She’s what you’d get if Socrates and Kojak were combined.” Elaine disapproves of rock music, but William’s older sister Anita (Emily Schultheis) is a huge rock fan, and bequeaths William her stash of LPs when she escapes to San Francisco for a job as a stewardess. (The albums serve as props in one of the more elaborately choreographed numbers.) Anita clearly had more influence than Elaine on William, who has become something of a rock savant, writing about bands for his high school paper and a local underground rag, and sending his clips to Lester Bangs (who was an actual music editor and writer in the 1970s that colleagues called America’s greatest rock critic.) Lester is impressed enough with William’s writing to assign him 500 words on a Black Sabbath concert.
Elaine drives him to the parking lot of the San Diego Sports Arena, depositing him at the backstage door, and embarrassing him (not for the last time) by yelling out a final admonition: “Don’t take drugs!” The embarrassment doesn’t end there. The doorman won’t let him in. “You’re not on the list! Go to the top of the ramp with the other girls.”
This is how he meets a group of young women, led by Penny Lane (Solea Pfeiffer), who are offended at being considered groupies; they call themselves Band Aids. As they sing (“Who Are You With”):
Groupies sleep with rock stars for the thrill
But we have secrets we will never spill
We are here for the music
We inspire the music
They close with what turns out to be the motto of almost everybody we meet: “No attachments, no boundaries.”
Just then, Stillwater arrives, the (fictitious) backup act for Black Sabbath. For some reason, they are singing Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On.” Excited, William introduces himself as a journalist and asks to interview them.
“A rock writer. The Enemy,” says Jeff (Drew Gehling), the lead singer. They tell William to get lost. But as he walks away, he shows off his encyclopedic knowledge of their music, an analysis not incidentally full of praise:” the guitar sound is… incendiary.”
“ Well, don’t stop there,” Russell, the lead guitarist (Chris Wood) calls out.
“Yeah, come back here,” Jeff says. “Keep going.”
These are the characters — the band and the Band Aids — who figure in William’s life for the rest of the show, especially after he gets a surprise phone call from Ben Fong-Torres, an editor at Rolling Stone (again, an actual person, here one of three roles performed by Matthew C. Yee.) The editor had seen his articles, and asks him if he has any ideas for Rolling Stone. “How about Stillwater”? he says, his voice comically deep, to disguise his youth.
It seems unfair to compare a new musical with a 22-year-old movie, but there are two aspects of the movie that remain indelible all these years later and that, despite my best effort, cast a shadow on the stage show for me.
The first is the Grammy-winning soundtrack, one hit rock song after another. It’s a reflection of our differing attitudes toward stage and screen that nobody would call the screen version of “Almost Famous” a jukebox movie. It is in many ways admirable that the new stage adaptation is not a jukebox musical. Tom Kitt (Next to Normal, Flying Over Sunset) has composed more than twenty original songs, with lyrics by Kitt and Crowe.
Some of the lyrics (such as the ones I just excerpted) are funny, and the melodies are pleasing enough. Here is a music video of Casey Likes recording “No Friends” with the ensemble:
The show also includes some half dozen established hits, though rarely the full songs: Besides “Ramble On,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man,” Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” Cat Stevens’ “The Wind,” and Joni Mitchell’s “River.”
But it’s just not the same. Take the song “River.” It’s a gorgeous, tear-inducing song. It’s presented at a dramatic moment. One of the main developments in the plot is that William gets a crush on Penny Lane, but she has a thing going with the handsome, charismatic Russell. But Russell is married, a situation that at one point leads to Penny Lane swallowing a bottle full of quaaludes. William sings “River” to her to revive her, because he knows it’s her favorite song. Is it wrong of me to have felt frustrated and deprived because it was just a snippet?
The other aspect of the movie that remains memorable is the acting. The 19 actors in the musical have wonderful voices and give performances that are at least competent, and sometimes more than that. Among the standouts is Casey Likes (who is indeed likeable), an impressive discovery, who first took on this heavy-lifting role as an awkward teen (who carries the show) at the age of 17 at San Diego’s Old Globe in 2019. (The show was supposed to go to Broadway the following year.)
But on screen Frances McDormand as William’s mother Elaine, the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs and Billy Crudup as the band’s guitarist Russell Hammond offer something extra. They portrayed their characters authentically, but they did so with a wink – subtly and affectionately satirizing these familiar archetypes with outsized personalities. Without that wink — that additional consciousness — the characters are simply not as interesting.
Anika Larsen is a pro, a six-time Broadway veteran who is Tony nominated for her role in “Beautiful.” But, as Elaine, she is not given the time, the space, nor the close-ups to enable this double consciousness. An example is the line “Rock stars have kidnapped my son,” which McDormand as Elaine says in the movie to great effect. In the musical, the line (repeated several times) becomes part of a song (“Elaine’s Lecture”) that mixes funny with bittersweet; it’s diluted, and not as effective — not the only time that a musical number subtracts more than it adds.
Larsen is not the only pro whose work has shined brighter in other shows. Jeremy Herrin previously directed the fast-paced “Noises Off” on Broadway and before that was Tony nominated for the stately “Wolf Hall Parts One and Two.” The pace of “Almost Famous” lies somewhere in-between; a number of moments seemed noticeably slower than they should have been, as if the actors had momentarily forgotten their lines. Derek McLane is a wonderful award-winning set designer who has done 45 shows just on Broadway, and hundreds elsewhere, some of which are on display in his lush new book “Designing Broadway.” His uninspired set for “Almost Famous” is a series of projected backdrops that largely seem designed not to attract attention (and perhaps to save money), as well as a surplus of neon signs that certainly tell us where we are (“MOTEL” “Max’s Kansas City”) although usually backwards, and a huge tacky map of the United States that lights up to show the route of the Stillwater tour. Cameron Crowe, who is making his Broadway debut, has a more auspicious track record on film, the writer and director not just of “Almost Famous” but such equally entertaining movies as “Say Anything” and “Jerry Maguire”
“Almost Famous” is a pleasant enough two and a half hours. But there is only one truly electrifying musical number in the show, where the cast lets it all hang out and you lose yourself in the overamplified anarchy of it all (what Lester Bangs might call the dumb thrill) — “Fever Dog,” one of the original songs written for the movie by Nancy Wilson, Peter Frampton, and of course Cameron Crowe himself. It surely says something that this number was the curtain call, each cast member belting it out like it’s life or death, for two seconds, just before taking their bow.
Update: Almost famous will close January 8, 2023, after 30 preview and 77 regular performances.
Bernard B Jacobs Theater
Running time: two and a half hours including an intermission
Book by Cameron Crowe; Music by Tom Kitt; Lyrics by Cameron Crowe and Tom Kitt;
Directed by Jeremy Herrin; Choreographed by Sarah O’Gleby
Scenic Design by Derek McLane; Costume Design by David Zinn; Lighting Design by Natasha Katz; Sound Design by Peter Hylenski; Hair and Wig Design by Luc Verschueren; Make-Up Design by Luc Verschueren
Cast: Casey Likes as William Miller, Chris Wood as Russell Hammond, Anika Larsen as Elaine Miller, Solea Pfeiffer as Penny Lane, Drew Gehling as Jeff Bebe, Rob Colletti as Lester Bangs. Matt Bittner, Chad Burris, Gerard Canonico, Julia Cassandra, Brandon Contreras, Jakeim Hart, Van Hughes, Jana Djenne Jackson, Claire Kwon, Katie Ladner, Danny Lindgren, Erica Mansfield, Alisa Melendez, Kevin Trinio Perdido, Andrew Poston, Emily Schultheis, Daniel Sovich, Libby Winters, and Matthew C. Yee.
Photos by Matthew Murphy